By Haley Jones, MASA Marketing & Digital Media Specialist

The residents of Alcona and surrounding communities have a new place to enjoy the outdoors this summer thanks to the students at Alcona Community Schools. 

A 43-acre parcel adjacent to the school campus has been transformed into the Alcona Community School Forest, complete with trails for hiking, jogging, or snowshoeing; hammocks and benches; a water feature; a disc golf course; and more – all thought up, designed and executed by students.

“We are all in on place-based learning,” said Dan O’Connor, superintendent of the district. “You’ve gotta love where you live and appreciate that.”

The primary goal of the district’s project is to provide creative educational opportunities while promoting stewardship involvement through biodiversity studies, soil science forest management, drainage and watershed education, agricultural education, and writing through nature journaling. The thought behind it – when students gain a deeper understanding of the natural resources in the places they live andhave connections to, it sets the groundwork for lifelong stewardship. 

Alcona Community Schools is the only district in Alcona county – an area in Northern Michigan that is mostly forest. To help attract families, district leaders have tried to focus on unique programs and opportunities that also reflect the area’s surroundings, O’Connor said. First graders raise chickens to learn their life spans, students participate in a sturgeon release with MSU Extension, and agricultural students tap maple trees and boil syrup to sell throughout the year.

Over the past four years, in addition to these learning opportunities, students have helped to build the School Forest that exists today.

The process started while the district’s current agri-science teacher, Connor Hubbard, was a student and eventually connected with Maureen Castern-French on a dream to acquire a property connected to the school that could be utilized for student and community purposes.  

Fast forward to 2019, the district was able to timber their property in Caledonia Township to utilize proceeds to purchase the 43 acres desired by Castern-French and Hubbard years prior.

After a bushhog of the new property, students got to work on brainstorming and executing their ideas. Students use their Genius Hour – an hour once a week to focus on a passion project – to work on projects for the property. 

Third graders reengineered the property’s water run-off holding area, including the math to solve for how deep to dig the basin. Another group worked on the creation of a two-acre holding pond – calling the contractors, filing the proper permits with EGLE, etc. It’s been an all-encompassing learning experience, with the necessary schoolwork plus the chance to learn how to communicate with stakeholders, manage a budget and so much more. “

It’s all students bringing ideas to the group and us helping them to get it done,” O’Connor said. “They had to regroup and add stuff, but that’s part of life, that’s part of the process.”

The project was one of only 10 across Michigan to receive a 2021 Education Excellence Award. In addition to a roadside sign and commemorative trophy, the project earned a $2,500 grant – money that went right back into student projects on the property.

Place-based learning is growing throughout the state of Michigan. An hour south of Alcona at Au Gres-Sims Schools, students are learning the importance of water quality and native-plant conservation through partnerships with Huron Pines and Northeast Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative (NEMIGLSI). To the west of Alcona, students at Vanderbilt Area Schools in Otsego County are also stewards of their own School Forest where they’ve established a trail, installed benches, and built an outdoor classroom. They’ve also helped establish a forest management plan to guide actions and activities on the land for the next decade.

The Alcona School Forest is open to the public after 5 p.m. throughout the school year to allow for outdoor learning and classroom space. During the summer and on weekends, the forest is open to the public dawn to dusk.

To learn more about the Alcona Community School Forest and the student projects that helped make it come to fruition, visit the district’s website.